When it comes to world cinema, Nepal isn't exactly the country that would top the list, or even be on the radar for that matter. Usually known for lifting popular formulas, sometimes literally scene-by-scene, from mainstream Indian and South Korean cinema, Nepal's film industry has been struggling to find its own distinct voice, restrained also by over a decade of civil war. It's existed instead as a byproduct of the mammoth Hindi film industry next door. However, Deepak Rauniyar's debut feature Highway is changing that, that too with international flair.
Shedding most notions of conventional commercial storytelling in the Indian subcontinent, Highway employs a very raw and somewhat experimental approach as it follows nine characters whose lives become unexpectedly interconnected during a tumultuous bus journey from the Indian border to Kathmandu.
As some of the characters ride the bus that's snaking through the beautiful vistas of eastern Nepal, bits and pieces of their stories begin to emerge. Each one of them has somewhere else to be, and someone else to reach. Roughly halfway to its destination, the passengers find themselves stranded as their bus is halted by a spontaneous and illegal bandh (political blockade) in the middle of the highway.
Frustrated by the interruption, the passengers devise a plan to turn their bus into a wedding procession, complete with a pretend bride and groom, in the hopes of being allowed through the blockade.
Rauniyar and writer Abinash Bikram Shah present a platter of fascinating and broken characters. There's the adulterous wife, a closeted gay man, a sexually impotent husband, a transgender victim of sexual violence, a lonely divorced doctor, and a nightclub dancer, among others. Through constantly intercutting vignettes, the film unravels the personal stories, most poignantly their vulnerabilities, as well as how they all ultimately connect with one another.
One of the film's greatest strengths is that it steers clear of presenting any of the characters as clichés. They exist in the narrative of Nepal without any need for sensationalism or melodrama. And that is one of the hard truths the film lays bare for its viewers. For example, the transgender character who is sexually solicited by many "respectable" men behind closed doors is also attacked by the very same people. The young medical student on her way to get married is forced to decide between her lover and the US-returned man she has been arranged with.
These fractured personalities, either escaping from something or seeking something else, are the same as people in any other part of the world. Yet their problems and desires define a modern Nepal, uneasily trying to settle down after years of civil war and an uncomfortable transition from a monarchy to a republic.
The bandh is symbolic of the constant interruptions in the lives of modern Nepalis. As the country tries to find itself political and socially, Highway blatantly points to several facets of the society that have largely been taboo or closely guarded in the conservative nation. But it isn't a criticism of Nepal either. It is more an honest exploration of the society, and one we haven't seen in such a way before.
Rauniyar reveals the layers of the film through skilled storytelling and a solid control of the world he's exploring. He's helped by a great cast, comprising Shristi Ghimire, Eelum Dixit, Asha Magarati, Vinay Shrestha, Dayahang Rai, Reecha Sharma, Rajan Khatiwada, Saugat Malla, Rabindra Mishra, Nirmala Rai, Bhumika Shrestha and Karma. With most of the dialogues improvised, each actor pitches in with a sincere and realistic performance, while also adding to the diverse cross-sectional demographic that the cast of characters represents.
While the film is abundantly tense, building up key dramatic moments carefully, it also lacks in the balance of relief from the tension. There are few light moments, and most of the humor is very subtle and underplayed. With so many heavy issues and themes being tackled, the lack of emotional balance becomes more evident as the film builds to its unsettling ending.
Highway was the first Nepali film in over 50 years to premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, a monumental feat for a country whose cinematic identity has otherwise been seen as an imitation of other cinemas. It's a multi-layered film about a country that the world doesn't know enough about, where the word 'highway' takes on several connotations and the bandh that interrupts the characters' lives comes to also represent the unpredictable, often jerky paths that their lives take.
Already released in Nepal to polarized reactions, the film is continuing its tour on the international festival circuit, and also gradually releasing in other countries. Highway is an accomplished debut for Rauniyar. It's a potent, path-breaking film for Nepal, that will do a lot to redefine Nepali cinema.
Highway will be screening at the ongoing Osian Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi on Aug 1 and 2. For more information, click here.